The Win-Win in East Harlem

New York Center for Autism Charter School + P.S. 50/I.S.50 middle school students
Mentorship Program Helps Bridge Two Schools

Trampolines, basketball hoops and nearly as many adults as students walking the halls… the New York Center for Autism Charter School (NYCACS) already feels like a pretty unconventional place to learn. What makes the school even more unique though, is its approach to co-location and collaboration.

Opened in September 2005 and housed in East Harlem's P.S/IS. 50, the New York Center for Autism Charter School is New York State's first public charter school dedicated exclusively to educating children with autism. Today the school with 29 full-time teachers provides life skills and art and music enrichment classes to 32 students.

Wanting to ensure their students were not needlessly isolated from the rest of the world, NYCACS' staff created the Peer Mentor Program, a unique initiative that's bringing middle school students from the downstairs district school up to build relationships with autistic students.

During their first year, the school launched a program that invited middle school students from P.S. 50/I.S. 50 to give up their recess or lunch hour three times a week to spend time learning about and interacting with kids they might normally know nothing about — autistic students.

"Within the school, we collaborate on a minute-to-minute basis, but the mentor program has taken that to a whole new level," says Jennifer Jaye, a teacher at NYCACS. "We can teach the skills in the classroom, but if they don't have the chance to practice with people their age, are we really teaching them?"

She says the Peer Mentor Program has been crucial to allowing her autistic students a chance to hang out with other kids, acquire standard social cues, learn how to maintain eye contact, and have "regular old kid-like" conversations about everything from TV shows to favorite breakfast foods.

From the beginning, the program proved a hit. Not only did a crew of six kids sign up to be mentors for the 10-week program, but four of them returned when their time was up to ask if they could keep mentoring.

"Middle school is a time where we're trying on roles," says Moira Cray, Director of the Peer Mentor Program. "This was an opportunity to try on the teacher role, and these kids were jazzed. They wanted to stay. We had unexpected consequences with the best outcome ever!"

The Peer Mentor Program continues each year, making a big impression on kids with autism, while also teaching middle school students about leadership, patience and building relationships with people who are different from them.

At first, it can be a little tough, says mentor Larsen Castro who graduated from P.S./I.S. 50 this spring.

"Yeah, it was a little weird to me," Castro recalls now with a smile. "Some of the kids would jump and scream… I thought, ‘What am I getting into?' It got me out of my comfort zone."

What Carson got into, kept him coming back — for five years. Now a college freshman, Castro says he misses the basketball, swimming, chess and Wii games with NYCACS students.

"Co-location is ideal for us," says Julie Fisher, founder and director of the NYCACS. "For some schools, it's a burden — for us, it's giving our kids the chance to be a part of a regular classroom. And it's giving mentors exposure, so they're not scared of autism. There's an opportunity for them to have relationships with people with autism, instead of just learning what autism is."

Fisher and Cray hope other schools will give it a try; they've shared the program's curriculum at conferences, posted it to the Autism Speaks website, and sent other educators their kit on building a mentorship program.